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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 70

Senator RIDGEWAY (5:15 PM) —I also want to speak, on behalf of the Australian Democrats, to this report of the Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs and to support the majority findings of the committee. I want to commend the chair of the committee, Senator Claire Moore. She did a wonderful job. Given the difficulty of the issues that the committee has had to deal with, it is often a hard task to keep people committed to dealing with the issues that come to the table but, most of all, to produce some sort of result.

Some of the comments that Senator Johnston has made are adequate in the sense that there has not been enough consultation. I would agree with that entirely. But the agenda that has been set has been one of the government’s making, particularly given that it decided to bring on the bill to deal with the abolition of ATSIC. So, under those circumstances and time constraints, it makes it difficult to get across the country and be comprehensive in the consultation. One thing I would say, though, is: let us not forget that the government initiated its own consultation. It was called an ATSIC review report and was done by the likes of Hannaford, Collins and Huggins. Consultation in that sense was extensive and comprehensive, and it occurred right across the country. So the committee was there to supplement and echo much of what had already been said by Indigenous people across the country.

The report is fairly clear and comprehensive in its condemnation of the Howard government and the failed practical reconciliation agenda. The recommendations, while, in my view, are okay, do not go far enough. I would have preferred stronger recommendations. Certainly they have been put forward in the Democrats’ supplementary report. I want to make a couple of brief comments on those.

The rhetoric about this government’s mainstream approach being a bottom-up approach is, quite frankly, both deceptive and manipulative, because clever language cannot hide the fact that the government is committed to assimilation and opposed to self-determination, as it has unashamedly stated on many occasions. Why won’t it admit that right now? Why won’t it just say what the Prime Minister said when he was in opposition back in 1986—that is, that he does not believe in what he regards as separate development, separate programs and separate laws? As Mick Dodson said, if you listen to the way the government is dealing with this you would swear that it has not got out there and spoken to anyone because, again, it is dealing with Indigenous people as if we are invisible on this continent, let alone on the entire planet.

The committee found that ATSIC was not the failure that this government would have the country believe. In fact, it was extremely successful given the hurdles it was up against. Now that we are post ATSIC and ATSIS, utter chaos does reign as a result of a hasty distribution of many of ATSIC’s functions to government departments. Even the new policy dealing with mutual obligation through shared responsibility is unclear. No minister or public servant has been able to say what SRAs actually are, produce guidelines on how departments and communities should go about making them or even confirm that they are legal, enforceable contracts. There have been no comments to this effect. In the meantime it is Indigenous people who suffer while this government mucks around with our lives. The government says it is about giving power back to the communities but the reality is that the government is reneging on legitimate decisions taken by ATSIC. I am not talking about the recent debacle being reported in the media; I am talking about decisions that have been taken previously to divest itself of assets, deal with the question of transfer of properties and deal with the question of remaining funds that are being held in trust, which many communities and community organisations are still waiting for.

I have raised on a number of occasions through the Senate select committee the issue of the MiiMi Mothers Aboriginal Corporation. It is there in the supplementary report as a case study. I think people ought to look at that. The government keeps talking about how it wants to deal with things on the ground as a result of a partnership. Here we have Aboriginal mothers in a community on the North Coast of New South Wales. A decision has been taken to transfer property to them. Of course, the government stepped in and changed its mind because it assessed it on new criteria. So much for these practical examples of following through, not just with the intent of a previous decision but with regard to looking after the interests of mothers and children in this case. They are in shared accommodation. Quite frankly, it was an opportunity for the government to deal with the matter. (Time expired)